Milling In The South Pacific Islands

Although this lightly populated region produces little grain, wheat-based foods are popular.

The lightly populated islands of the South Pacific cover a vast expanse of ocean extending several thousand kilometres from Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the east to Tahiti in the west. Even on the
largest island groups of this “Blue Continent,” almost no cereals are grown. Still, wheat-based foods and rice play a big role in the diets of the 12 sovereign countries and 10 dependent territories.

Excluding Australia and New Zealand on its subtropical and temperate southern periphery, the population of Oceania is just 12.3 million, of which three quarters is PNG. Flour milling companies are found in only four larger countries: PNG, Fiji and New Caledonia with two each and a single small miller in Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, the region is largely self-sufficient in wheat flour production.

There is a smattering of subsistence rice farming and village mills in some countries, but the only commercial-scale milling is in New Caledonia of imported paddy.

Before the arrival of Europeans, easily cultivated taro and breadfruit as well as coconuts were the main sources of carbohydrates while fish and pork provided protein. Other introduced root crops like yams and cassava are now important as well.

In most countries, health indicators like longevity and infant mortality have improved significantly in recent decades, but modern diets and overnutrition pose a major challenge. The 10 countries with the world’s highest rates of obesity are all in the South Seas, ranging from 46% in Samoa to 62% in Nauru, leading to a growing incidence of diabetes and hypertension.

The South Pacific can be divided into three subregions that provide a framework for this survey: Melanesia in the east; the Polynesian triangle to the west and south; and Micronesia, much of which is north of the equator.

FMF Foods Ltd.’s milling complex near the Walu Bay port of Suva, capital of Fiji, is the oldest and largest in the South Pacific.

MELANESIA

Thanks to its relatively large population, central geographic position and a pair of strong food companies, Fiji (896,445 people) is the linchpin of milling and trade in wheat foods in the South Pacific.

Fiji’s population is ethnically divided mainly between the indigenous people constituting 57%, officially known as iTaukei, and 37% Indo-Fijians introduced as plantation laborers by the British in the 19th century. The former group is still largely engaged in semi-subsistence farming. Rural families consume much of what they grow and adhere more to the traditional diet of taro, yams and breadfruit, while the latter, who are mostly urban dwellers, consume the largest amounts per capita of imported rice and flour.

Fiji’s annual rice imports, stable at around 40,000 tonnes, make up 80% of use.

Total wheat imports to Fiji in 2019 were 200,000 tonnes, about a one-third increase in a decade. All wheat comes from Australia with bulk vessels routinely discharging part of their cargo at mills in Indonesia and PNG before reaching Fiji.

A. Cowley and Sons has a semi-automated tunnel oven for toast bread and other products.

FMF Foods Ltd. is Fiji’s oldest and largest milling company. It has operated its flour mill near the harbor of Suva, the capital city since the late 1970s. Milling capacity of several hundred tonnes per day exceeds demand. The company has a rice packaging line at its mill site. A new biscuit factory just outside Suva was launched in August 2017. It makes specially formulated breakfast crackers with local brand names for the markets of PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, as wells as the traditional FMF brands.

Three years ago, FMF followed soon after by Punjas introduced atta flour products to local supermarkets, a marketing success. FMF is publicly traded on the Fiji stock exchange. Total revenues for the year ended June 30, 2019, were Fiji dollars 190 million ($88 million), up slightly from the previous year.

Atta flour is a newer product introduced to supermarkets by two Fijian milling companies.

Punjas Group is Fiji’s second, newer milling company. Its plant, supplied by Bühler, is located in Lautoka on the eastern side of the same island, near the main international airport at Nadi. Competition is fierce among the two companies both domestically and in the many Pacific island export markets where they dominate supply of flour and breakfast crackers.

Punjas is a diversified company, with 1,000 employees producing and distributing a wide range of food and household products to its importers and distributors throughout the Pacific.

PNG (8.9 million people) is an outlier from the rest of the South Pacific geographically, demographically and in other ways. Its rapidly growing population and land area is by far the largest. Culturally and linguistically it is one of the world’s most heterogenous nations. Three quarters of the population reside in villages, very often in isolated valleys.

In 2019, PNG imported 300,00 tonnes of wheat, a 50% increase over 10 years before, according to the USDA, due to growing population and urbanization.

Breakfast crackers, thanks to their long shelf life, are a dietary staple as in most other South Seas countries. However, in PNG the dry, hard biscuits may account for the highest proportion of wheat-based foods.

In 2019, PNG imported 300,000 tonnes of wheat, a 50% increase over 10 years before, according to the USDA, due to growing population and urbanization.

In PNG, whole villages close to cities specialize in bread baking.

Goodman Fielder, a diversified Australia-based food company, operates two flour mills of about 250 tonnes per day capacity in the capital of Port Moresby in the southeast and at Lae on the northern coast. Its PNG company started as Associated Mills in 1975.

Niugini Tablebirds Ltd., PNG’s leading poultry and crocodile meat processor, also has a mill in Lae that makes 3 Roses Flour and animal feed.

Goodman Fielder divested its flour mills in Australia and New Zealand but hung on to them in PNG and in New Caledonia (285,498), a self-governing French territory. Since 2015 Goodman Fielder has been a subsidiary of Wilmar International, Asia’s largest agribusiness company.

Locally owned St. Vincent Group operates the second milling company in New Caledonia, which started up in 1985 and is located outside Noumea, the capital. It imports wheat from Australia and Europe in bulk 20-foot containers holding 25 tonnes each. The company offers the largest assortment of flour of anywhere in the South Pacific, making possible a wide range of baked foods catering to a mostly middle-class population with sophisticated European tastes. Likewise, the company has a feed mill that predates the flour mill, with four lines making pelleted products for several types of livestock as well as shrimp feed. Finally, St. Vincent Group operates a rice mill processing paddy imported from southeast Asia.

The Solomon Islands (686,445), the least developed country of Oceania, is home to one milling company. Delite Flour Mill is located in the capital of Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal, where the majority of the urban population is concentrated. The company imports wheat in bulk containers for domestic production of about 90% of the flour used in the country. Per capita wheat flour use is well below 100 grams, in contrast to most countries of the region where it exceeds that. Lower average incomes and dispersal of the population on dozens of islands in the archipelago contribute to smaller consumption. Delite has fortified its flour output with vitamins and minerals since 2015.

Ah Pow Bakery in Port Vila, the largest bread maker in Vanuatu, produces mainly baguettes and other French-style baked foods reflecting the country’s colonial heritage.

Rice, mostly imported, is eaten much more than wheat flour. A law requiring vitamin and mineral fortification of all imported rice was passed in 2018.

Vanuatu (307,145) is the largest country in the South Pacific without a wheat mill. Distribution of flour to a population spread evenly over a large archipelago of at least 80 inhabited islands is an obstacle. Imported breakfast crackers are a staple food. Up until independence in 1980, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) was jointly administered by the British and French. The influence of the latter is reflected in a strong preference for baguettes, the main output of the largest bread maker, Ah Pow Bakery in Port Vila, the capital. Ah Pow relies mainly on flour imported from Australia and Indonesia.

POLYNESIA

Samoa (198,414) does not have a flour mill. Rather its major food importers have strong alliances with the two Fijian millers to procure wheat flour for commercial bakeries, mostly attached to large supermarkets, and for retail sales in those stores. Large rectangular loaves of white toast bread are the biggest sellers, but a growing middle class and burgeoning tourism has spurred demand for a greater variety of bread and pastry types. Consumption of instant noodles, 30% palm oil and often eaten dry as a snack, is high. One company produces them locally, but most are imported from China and Southeast Asia. Rice consumption per capita exceeds wheat flour with most rice coming from Australia or China.

The Kingdom of Tonga (105,695) to the south of Samoa has healthy, small-scale commercial agriculture and even exports melons to Samoa and containerloads of taro to Australia and New Zealand, where there are large communities of Pacific Islanders sending home remittances that account for a big part of GDP in several countries.

The largest Tongan baking company and one of the main food importers is A. Cowley & Sons, established in the late 19th century by the English immigrant great-grandfather of the current owner, Alfred Cowley. The company has invested in a semi-automated tunnel oven to counter labor shortages resulting from the large number of Tongans working abroad. It is the exclusive import agent of FMF, including its popular breakfast crackers, and has the same arrangement for Fonterra powdered milk from New Zealand. The second leading Tongan baker has its own breakfast cracker production.

Several years ago, Cowley started a layer farm at first to provide eggs for his cake bakery. It has become the largest poultry operation on Tonga, with 8,000 hens requiring importation of a few containerloads of poultry feed from New Zealand every month.

Despite its remoteness, French Polynesia (280,908), centered on the largest island Tahiti, is politically integrated with France, in much the same way Hawaii is part of the United States. Government subsidized private flour imports of 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes per year are conducted through a highly regulated tendering process subject to much controversy.

Tuvalu (11,792) is known as the world’s least visited and one of the two smallest (26 square km) countries. The densely inhabited main atoll of Funafuti, with 7,000 people and almost no room for crops, has a single commercial bakery, Mils Fresh, founded by a retired seafarer, Teitimani Simeone, who was seeking something to do “for the rest of his time ashore.” Two employees make a single product — 800-gram loaves of toast bread selling for A$4. There are 30 to 40 Tuvalese households that bake daily buns, rolls, samosa, cakes, pastries and other products for sale in a nearby community bakery shop.

A large number of families keep pigs in stys with magnificent ocean views from a rugged strip of shoreline on the other side of the airport from town. The owners slop them with a mixture of coconut flesh, table scraps and Millmix, composed of bran and screenings imported from Fiji. They tote the slop across the runway in rectangular 5-kg plastic bread cracker pales.

MICRONESIA

The Marshall Islands (59,190), Kiribati (119,449), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM: 115,023) and Palau (18,094) are collections of mostly far flung atolls, while Nauru (10,824) is just one main island.

Container ship lines from Fiji serve most of them, enabling a reliable supply of breakfast crackers and wheat flour from FMF and Punjas. However, the relative proximity of Micronesia to Northern Hemisphere countries means rice and many processed foods also come from elsewhere. FSM gained its independence from the United States in 1986 but still has a special status thanks to a Compact of Free Association.

For animal feed, rice, wheat flour and many processed foods, FSM mainly depends on shipments from the American mainland on vessels that also serve US territories Guam (168,775) and Northern Mariana Islands (57,559).

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